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Difficulty is Difficult: Designing for Hard Modes in Games
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Difficulty is Difficult: Designing for Hard Modes in Games

September 16, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this in-depth article, originally printed in Game Developer magazine, designer Boutros takes a close look at difficulty in games, asking how creators can add unique, high-end challenges which excite, but don't frustrate skilled players.] 

Difficulty modes in games are rarely discussed as an important factor in our business. In some games, they are well-thought out additions, built for the hardcore players. In other games, these modes are an afterthought, provided to appease a publisher, or as an attempt to provide direction to multiple audiences attracted by the same product.

For almost all developers though, difficulty modes are tackled at the end of the project when the game is being tuned, and they are tough to implement well without significant time and thought.

For this piece, I'll aim to explore some methods and philosophies behind how difficult play has been successfully implemented in games overall, either in terms of general difficulty, or within an optional objective that recontextualises play (such as Rare's super-tough multiplayer bonus unlockable objective in GoldenEye for the Nintendo 64).

We'll explore where certain methods have worked, failed, and where they are simply not relevant anymore. Since difficulty is so subjective, I'll focus arguments around the following ideas:

"A player must always feel like the failure of a challenge is entirely his own responsibility, and not a fault of a poorly designed product."

"The player must understand how and why he failed, so that he can learn from his mistake and increase the feeling of failure being his responsibility."

Choosing a high difficulty is the act of wanting to be tested on the part of the player. The reward of passing a test is a feeling of worth and accomplishment-and to make a test enjoyable is to make it challenging, while also achievable. Tuning difficulty in a quick and dirty way can also change the game's play fundamentally-this is something many developers don't factor into their decisions enough.

Tuning for Tough

Many games have sought to copy Rare's N64 GoldenEye model for greater difficulty - double damage from enemies = harder game - but within the context of other factors, doing this can actually change the consistent play type of the game, and thus change the experience in a fundamental and arguably unsatisfying way.

Let's say there's a fictitious FPS called NaziShoot 2000. In this game's normal difficulty mode, the player can usually get shot, have a second to think, recover, then react. In tough mode, players cannot risk being shot as the increased damage and AI kills them almost instantly.

This forces players to move and act more conservatively. In an ideal-world's well-designed tough game, it would be possible to play through and not die, if the player used the utmost care and thoughtfulness. However, this game had to hit a deadline so the tough mode had to be evolved from the normal mode, and tuned to a formula. In this memorizing bottleneck scenario, surprise snipes to the head, and learning from trial and error become the dominant way to play.

And there is the difference: whereas one mode is a reactionary and lightly memory-reliant experience, in the tough mode, the game becomes very classically rooted in trial and error, using memory play as the core consistent play type. The only way a player can survive with meager resources and a damage disadvantage is by trying, dying, remembering, and restarting.

This is a classic tenet of the old school 2D arcade shooters. In a 3D game where an additional axis dramatically adds to your things-to-worry-about radar, control complexity is usually increased, and gameplay acts-core gameplay sequences such a shooting something and then grabbing a power-up-are spread across a longer timeline because of the physical world's scale increase. If the player can be killed in one hit, or by other fatal game features, this can often result in an intense feeling of frustration, and quite possibly lead to dissatisfaction with the game overall.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Kale Menges
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Excellent article.

Brice Morrison
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Agreed. Nice to see techniques on improving the hardcore gamer's experience nowadays since we're getting used to focusing on the casual.

Bart Stewart
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Very helpful ideas.

One additional suggestion is to turn the problem of difficulty adjustment on its head: rather than designing the game to be relatively easy and increasing the challenge by adding problems or reducing resources, set the default balance to be "really hard" and provide dynamic tools that help the player overcome the challenges.

Some basic examples of such tools would be spawning more ammo and/or health powerups, reducing the number of enemy units, and degrading enemy AI. But a more interesting approach could be for the game to be able to detect when the player is having trouble with one section of the game -- perhaps they frequently die and reload in the same location. As this condition is detected, the game could begin to spawn friendly NPCs with ever-increasing abilities to support the player. "I'll cover you -- you take out that generator!"

The approach has the advantage of allowing the game to be tuned with a consistently difficult level of challenge throughout, while dynamically providing just enough help when and where it's needed to get players through sections they're having particular trouble with.

Allen Seitz
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"Simon Says" - yup! I've described my favorite rhythm games with the same two words before. I see now I'm not alone.

Another way to make "Simon Says" harder is to redefine the victory condition. The best example is Beatmania's "normal clear" and "hard clear". The evaluation of your success is very different depending on which lifebar you pick. With the normal lifebar you're immortal and victory is defined as a solid performance. But with the hard lifebar not only can you die, but you die easily. Mistakes are still allowed, but you'll lose as soon as the game catches you 'faking it'.

Wyatt Epp
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I've found that playing a greater difficulty level can sometimes be pursued for the sake of scoring higher. As an extension, by blending the risk/reward mechanic with difficulty level, even players that aren't good at the game can push their limits. This necessitates a "bottom-up" difficulty crafting process, so it's not for everyone (I'm generally with Bart up there on this one, if maybe a little more indignant at how easy games have become ;) )

The particular example that comes to mind as an exemplification of this is the arcade shooting game Gunroar, by Kenta Cho ( freeware for download. There's also a Linux binary out there). The game always progresses forward AT LEAST at a certain rate and can never get below that. This is the bottom. However, at the player's option he or she might choose to proceed faster and thereby increase the game multiplier faster than it would otherwise do on its own autoscroll. This has two effects: The game gets harder and the score for downing an enemy ship is greater. This allows someone with no experience with the game to gradually come to understand what expectations to have, and allows an experienced player to jump right in and ramp up their personal difficulty in no time at all.

Another interesting facet of Gunroar (and many independent Japanese-made games, if I'm to be frank) is the ability of one to watch replay of one's own gameplay. Some games allow you to save them, but Cho's games tend to use the replay as the game's demo. That is, when you lose in Gunroar, the title screen will have your latest game in the background for you to watch at your leisure. While this doesn't provide the improved functionality of a saved file (you can't speed up, skip, or rewind), it does give immediate feedback on how you played. These games in particular tend to give one tunnel vision because the player's single-shot-death boat is much more important than destroying every enemy. The instant replay allows a wider view of the field while the experience is still fresh in their mind. This replay mechanic serves, then, two roles. One, to help improve the score of the player by giving them the opportunity to better understand where and how to take risks for score; and two, to offer some loss feedback-- know where the bullet originated from and how it moved and why you were there in the first place allowing you to possibly learn from the experience of loss.

I'm of a very strong mind that, with the right balance, dynamic difficulty could eliminate this concept of granular "levels" in the classic sense and we're starting to approach the point where it's computationally feasible to do so. I'm not at all certain that I WANT the concept to die, but that's a discussion for a different day.

Aaron Casillas
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Great recommendations!

One key I've always found is think about difficulty not as making the game more difficult but instead think about it as making the game more challenging.

This could implore ideas of tactics and strategy of AI and combat encounters. More flanking, more aggressive behaviors, AI can hear you better, they track you for a longer amount of time etc...

Yes I agree increasing the hitpoints in npc's is bad, but often used technique. Increasing accuracy can also be quirky. Inc the deadlies of each npc might be a better tuning strategy.

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I disagree with Bart; dynamically making the game easier when the player fails undermines the balance. If I play well and you just give me fewer bullets or medkits or whatever, I'm being punished for success. If I play poorly and you give me better supplies, I'm being rewarded for failure. The optimal strategy there is "pool-hall hustler" where I play really poorly so that you load me up on super-bombs and plasma charges and whatever, then start playing well when the big boss character shows up. If you're making a game about hustling people at pool or whatever, that's fine, because that's the inherent mechanic; look weak, deceive them into underestimating you, then unleash your real skill when the money's on the table. But otherwise, the game is actively punishing players for learning its core mechanics. The motivation for me to get better at the game's skills is so that I can win. If executing these skills causes the difficulty to spike (by denying me bonus goodies), then I'll never really improve because you keep bailing me out when I fail, or punishing me when I succeed. I'll also lose desire to play, because a game that tries to make me win isn't very exciting.

Wyatt Epp
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Now, now, please don't get ahead of yourself, good sir. When you take it to that extreme, yes, it is absolutely unfair. But you may be making some pretty big assumptions about what properly embodies the concept of "dynamically adjusting difficulty" in the process. I, for one, would say that giving things to poor players so they can get by is not the correct path-- there are other ways to accomplish the goal.

One technique for an action game, for example, might be to make enemies slower or leave longer openings between attacks or have less armour as you, the player, fail more. In sports games, decrease the stamina or some other attribute of the winner at halftime. Make the enemy guns less or more accurate in an FPS, make the enemies less aggressive in an adventuring title, increase the amount of wear on the opposition's tyres as you race about the circuit. There are multitudes of things that can be done to "help" the player surreptitiously without resorting to giving them more than they could have earned normally. Giving handouts in a game is rather irresponsible, in my opinion.

Some of these, at a glance, may seem rather drastic. Indeed, some of them, when hustled hard, could be game-breakingly terrible. But two factors should be considered here. First off, at the point where you're gaming the system like that, you're no longer playing the game you paid for-- you're playing a game of your own devising wherein you purposely attempt to break the core mechanics as thoroughly as possible. You're playing it like an MMO. Second, one iteration of change should have effects that are only noticeable if you know to look for them and then only barely. Subtlety is key in my theory, here (use your imagination. S'what you get paid for, no? :).

But Brad's ideas are still interesting, and I could see them as now being possible in certain genres (hell, you can do anything if you throw enough code at it. It might not be good, but you can do it). Dynamic difficulty, as Anonymous above me notes, is definitely a touchy subject, and one I've given a lot of thought to. I'll still say that I definitely think it's doable, and even a good idea to try. Using subtle gradations rather than large leaps should have a net effect of keeping the pressure on the player and actually nurturing their growth (we can count on powergaming munchkins existing, but if that's how they want to play...well, the customer is always right :/ ).

It's just another piece of the balancing formula, just as difficulty has always been.